At the Bottom of Hadrian’s Garden

Everybody in Britain is aware of that long ribbon of rock that stretches 73 miles from the east to the west coast, dividing the border of England and Scotland. Except that it doesn’t really divide the border – being somewhat to the south of the modern-day line on a map. Everybody has seen pictures of the majestic and impenetrable curtain wall, standing many metres high, and crowned by imposing crenellations from behind which, Roman soldiers would fire their arrows at those pesky oncoming barbarians. Except that all that remains of the wall are foundations, and some well-made replicas. And everybody knows that it provided an impregnable stone barrier, protecting Roman interests to its south. Except that large parts were actually nothing more than turf mounds a couple of metres high. There are a lot of myths and legends associated with Hadrian’s Wall, but it is safe to say that the placement of such a unique structure within the Roman Empire has given those living on these islands an over-inflated impression of the importance that they had within the vast imperial domain.

Strangely, one fact that is little recognised outside of the history community is that historians and archaeologists really don’t know what this cast construction project was actually for. This might seem strange, but do stick with me.

The most obvious suggestion is that Hadrian’s Wall is a defensive installation, as noted above, to keep out barbarian incursions from the north. But there are several issues with this assumption. Firstly, many parts of the wall were downgraded during the construction process to be much thinner and shorter than the original plans, reducing its defensive capabilities. Furthermore, as mentioned above, stretches of it were only a couple of metres high and built from turf. Hardly the material of an impregnable barrier. Secondly, along the 73 miles of its length, there are no fewer than 80 milecastles, and 17 forts, each with gates for passage through. That is significantly porous for something intended to keep people out, and quite simply put, would be phenomenally inefficient by Roman standards.

With that in mind, it is often suggested that the Wall was a mechanism for controlling access and egress to and from the Empire, which is a fairly sensible suggestion. Particularly as the Romans loved to impose taxes upon goods entering and exiting their Empire. But that is only until you observe the placement of many of those gates. They occupy the most baffling positions with some on the tops of hills, and others adjacent to vertical cliffs. This does make one wonder whether those planning the wall knew, or indeed cared, where they were to be placed, or if they were simply following the edict of the Emperor who commissioned its construction. This would be much like the legend of the Tsar’s finger and the Trans-Siberian railway, in which Tsar Nicholas I was said to have drawn a line across his Empire with a pencil and a ruler to show where he wanted the route, but his finger caused a bump in the line. The designers, fearful of reprisal, dared not question this mistake and so it was included as per the Tsar’s faulty drawing. Perhaps Hadrian simply declared that he wanted a fort every mile, and the engineers simply followed his word to the letter, regardless of context. Even so, this does somewhat undermine the idea that the Wall was intended as some kind of official border control mechanism.

Historians also consider the context of the Roman Empire during this time to try to seek an explanation for the Wall. Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, had expanded the Empire to its greatest extent in 117 AD, and was respected as a military leader and conquered. Whilst Hadrian was similarly respected amongst his troops, his long reign was marked by considerable relative stability and peace both within the Empire, and at its borders. Yet he had inherited the same army that had spent the better part of a century wandering around Europe and conquering vast swathes of territory. This was no small band of fighters either, but an enormous and disciplined mass of just less than half a million men. It could hardly be justified to allow such a number to simply sit in camps, twiddling their fingers for decades on end. Plus, restless soldiers had in the past found new ways to occupy themselves by plotting military rebellions. It would be quite understandable if Hadrian had taken the strategic decision to keep the 15,000 or so men that are thought to have been required to construct the wall busy in the task of doing so. Furthermore, continuous maintenance and manning would have tied up thousands of otherwise idle solders for decades more.

Another thought is that the Wall was simply a demonstration to the unruly indigenous population of the northern British Isles – showing that the might of Rome could reach even into the furthest corners of its empire. Just like the White Tower in London let the Southerners know not to mess with William the Conquerer, would those under the yoke of Roman rule dare to threaten an imperialist machine that could create such an imposing structure of power in such a short period of time?

The reality is, we do not really know what Hadrian’s Wall was for. There is surprisingly little physical evidence to help us, other than to point us towards the superficial suggestions above, which are each problematic in themselves. Even more surprisingly, considering the enormous importance that is placed upon the Wall in British culture, and how it is used as a demonstration of the importance of the British Isles within the Roman Empire, it does not seem really to have registered with Romans of the period. In the entire body of Roman writing, there is only one singular piece of literary evidence that Hadrian had built the wall, and that resides within the notoriously unreliable Scriptores Historiae Augustae which post-dates the reign of Hadrian by a couple of centuries or so. Surely had it made an impact upon Roman minds of the day, reams of information would have been available on the subject.

My best guess is that Hadrian’s Wall is likely a little bit of everything mentioned above; it was a multi-purpose construction that could serve simultaneously as defensive barrier, border control, endless task for a restless army, and a signature of power to the locals. It may not have been perfect in any one of these functions, but if any civilisation understood the efficiency of using a single structure for a multitude of purposes, it would have been the Romans.

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Pearls and Poverty in Elizabethan England

To the vast majority, the Elizabethan period means little more than fabulously dressed courtiers, exquisite jewellery, a queen with the most incredible hair, and giving the Spanish a bit of spanking when they got a bit too intimate with the South coast of England. For those a little better acquainted with the period, they might make note of its increased economic growth, prosperity, and the first tentative steps towards the creation of a colonial empire – all predicated upon state-sanctioned piracy of ships returning from the New World to the Old, attempting to head towards those same Spanish ports from which the infamous Armada set sail. The period is often cited as one of relative religious toleration, with Protestants and Catholics moving towards a detente although, of course, the extent to which that is the case is, in truth, limited.

But there is one aspect in which the Elizabethan period is considered to have paved the way towards the modern world; the assistance of the poor.

The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, drew together a disparate set of prior legislation, and consolidated the idea that local parishes were required to provide alms, assistance, or work, to the destitute of their area. And this is often considered to demonstrate the care and maternal instinct of the mother of the nation. However, there are significant issues with considering this Act some kind of proto-socialism, and considering Elizabeth herself a kindly monarch for enacting it.

Firstly, the Act came in the final two years of the Queen’s life, and prior to it, a number of barbaric changes to the law were implemented that ensured the poor would have a genuinely miserable, and often violent existence. Henry VII had introduced a law in 1495 ordering those out of work and in poverty to be placed in the stocks for three days. Henry VIII raised the stakes to include a severe whipping. But the worst was yet to come. Elizabeth allowed a law to be passed in 1572 that required beggars to be burned through the ear for their first offence, and hanged for persistent poverty. Hardly the actions of a magnanimous ruler.

Admittedly, Elizabeth was the first monarch to legalise the distinction between the so-called ‘deserving poor’ and those who were able to work, and formalised assistance for the former group. However, the brutal punishment meted out to the latter group demonstrates that society was nowhere near an attempt to move towards social equality at that time.

The second issue is that the reasons behind why they were enacted demonstrates that there was no kindly intent in the Poor Laws. Quite aside from the Catholic hang-ups that still existed around alms-giving as part of the sacrament of penitence (which was a requirement if you wished to get to heaven), there were more terrestrial rationales.

Even 400 years ago, the wealthy recognised that people must be kept well-enough fed and sheltered to prevent crime; hungry people will steal to eat. It was a genuine concern of the day, amid a growing population and increasing unemployment, that there would be so many in poverty that they would band together in groups and form a substantial rebellion against the state. As it simply would not do to upset the social order in this way, a minimum quantity of resources was required to pacify the masses, keeping them docile enough to rule.

It was also believed that the poor were in and of themselves a cause of disease. In an age where it was believed that illness spread through miasma – bad smells – it is not difficult to imagine how this belief came about. Preventing widespread poverty was considered a way in which, to some extent, the spread of disease could be controlled.

By the time Queen Elizabeth I passed away in 1603, laws had been put in place that provided consistent assistance to those within society who were unable to care for themselves. But it was by no means a selfless act. And, whilst the Poor Laws continued to exist in some shape or form until their eventual and complete repeal in 1967, they can in no way be considered as a form of proto-socialism.

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The British and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Whenever one engages a white British individual in dialogue about the Transatlantic slave trade, you are guaranteed to hear one or more of the standard, practiced responses that are surely by now an inbuilt part of the genetic make-up of the citizens of this United Kingdom. The first usually goes something like, ‘all European nations were engaged in the trade’. The second, ‘but it was Africans who were selling Africans to the Europeans’. And the third, almost invariably accompanied by a smug expression, ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade’.

Whilst none of these are factually incorrect statements, they lack a fundamental comprehension of the context surrounding them that displays a terrifyingly wilful ignorance of reality from those who speak them. It is the context of those statements that will be addressed here.

It is true that slavery has existed since before we have the historical records to document it. Whilst there has been debate over the extent of their role in various historical events, such as the construction of the pyramids, it is fairly irrefutable that civilisation marched forward, built upon the backs of the oppressed, for several millennia. That is not to say that all slaves were treated equally; the Romans provide a number of examples of slaves who were in positions of great power throughout society, whilst simultaneously dishing out harsh treatment such as routine rape and torture of their human property.

Fast-forwarding to the early years of the European slave industry, and it was the Portuguese and Spanish who kicked things off by setting up trading posts on the west coast of Africa, and sending captured individuals to their colonies in South America. Not to be outdone, the Dutch, French, Italians, and pretty much any nation with the capacity to build ships got in on the game. The British were, of course, as usual a little late to the whole colonial-imperialism party, but they soon caught up on the action. It is thought that John Hawkins was the first Englishman to undertake a slave-trading voyage; from 1564 to 1569 it is estimated that he transported around 1100 Africans across the Atlantic. This might sounds like an enormous number, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the five millions of individuals that Britain alone transported from Africa to the Americas, and an even smaller percentage when compared to the estimated twelve million total. Added to the 10-15% of those who died during passage and were unceremoniously dumped overboard, and the babies who were born into slavery, this is a truly staggering figure. There is no denying that most European countries played their part in adding individuals to this total, but Britain and Portugal alone are calculated to have been responsible for around 70% of this trade, with Britain transporting over eight hundred thousand slaves in a single 25-year period between 1751 and 1775. In fact, with impending abolition, in the twenty years prior to 1808, Britain sent more slaves across the Atlantic annually than any nation had done previously. This does not excuse the other European nations for their part in this barbaric system, but it certainly highlights the ridiculous nature of those who seek to downplay the role of the British in this heinous activity.

For those who look to the USA as a means of excusing the British role in the North Atlantic slave trade, their total number of transportations was ten times less than their former imperial masters.

On to the next point. And it will be brief.

Any person who enslaved another was complicit in the Transatlantic slave trade, be they white European, or Black African. However, most individuals, given the choice between more power and more wealth, or a musket shot in the back of the head, would choose the former over the latter. One is welcome to be an idealist about this, and say that those Africans who participated in the slave trade should have taken the musket shot instead (and I am sure some will have done), but I will not condemn a person for choosing life. Particularly when their place in the industry would simply have been filled by another person. The machine of slavery was driven by European supply-and-demand, financed by European wealth, and enforced by superiority and might of European weaponry. There is little that an individual African, or indeed an African nation, could have done at this point in their history to counter this. For proof, one must only look to other complex and developed civilisations, the Aztecs, the Inca, Mughal India, Imperial China, and see what happened to them when a European nation desired to impose its will.

So to our final point. The British Empire abolished the slave trade. And forgive the abandonment of professionalism for a paragraph or so.

Of all of the decontextualised tripe that is spouted about the British role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and its eventual end, this is one that causes my blood pressure to rise the most. Of course, for many, this is the direct result of their education; until relatively recently, anything and everything British-related was taught through a rose-tinted lens, and a whilstfull sadness, shrouded in a post-imperial malaise. The Empire did nothing but good. ‘We gave them the railways!’, or ‘but where would they have been without the British Empire?’ You get the point. The shiny, glossed-over horrors of multiple genocides, economic devastation, racism, brutality, and of course, slavery, are ignored in the delicious imagery of Britannia striding forward bringing peace and civilisation to the world. Our slave owners were surely gentlemen who lived their lives with a misty-eyed romanticism, on beautiful plantations, who fed, housed, and cared for their chattel property. Let us forget that slave-owners such as Thomas Thistlewood wrote gleefully in their diaries about the times that they punished their slaves by tying them down and, ‘shitting in their mouth’s’. Or taking a pregnant woman, fastening her belly-down upon a plank, lashing her until her bone showed through, and leaving her there in the Jamaican mid-day sun. Of course we want to ignore this; the British were too civilised for such behaviour. Except that they weren’t.

Which brings us around to our final quote; ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade!’

Yes. There were two acts of parliament that brought about the end of the slave trade within the British Empire. In 1807, the trading of human beings was prohibited (though one was still permitted to continue owning slaves already in their possession), and in 1833, a second act was passed abolishing slavery altogether. Hurrah! Aren’t the Brits wonderful, and kind, and liberal, and all of those other lovely adjectives. Except for a couple of things.

Although it is right to say that there were various abolition movements, such as the Sugar Boycotts, prior to the 1807 act, they had relatively little affect upon the governments of the time. It wasn’t until the Act of Union in 1800, bringing 100 Irish MPs into the House of Commons to shift the balance in favour of abolition. Even then, it was no certainty. There was no moral will to see the practice of slavery come to an end. Instead, it was an economic argument that won the day. Ever since Adam Smith wrote his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, the cumbersome mercantilist policies of the British Empire had come under question, and a desire to replace them with a laissez-faire style of governance had arrived, with the philosophy that minimal central intervention of the markets would provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of people to acquire the greatest amount of wealth. However, unwilling to abandon its symbol of imperial prestige – the Empire – entirely, Britain mashed up various political philosophies and spluttered into the nineteenth century not really sure what to do about the rest of the world. Laissez-faire required markets into which to sell manufactured goods, but of course we did not want to open up our borders to competition – that would be a disaster! Yet, there simply wasn’t an overseas market within the Empire big Enough to drive demand for manufactured products. In short, it was considered that there was more profit to be made in manufacturing goods and selling to an emancipated empire, than using free labour to create raw materials.

I’m sure you see where this is going.

It did not go unnoticed by a new class of capitalists, that around the Empire were thousands upon thousands of individuals who currently had no purchasing power; they were not a potential market for goods, because they had no money with which to buy them. However, if this unwaged population could be transformed into consumers within the Empire, all of the questions of how to implement laissez-faire, whilst retaining the Empire, would be resolved. The economic argument was persuasive, and as history shows, it did win out in the end. However, the ancient mercantilist system did not go away without a fight.

We must remember that all of this was occurring at a time when democracy was not defined by every person having the right to vote. It was restricted to the wealthy, land-owning classes. Almost exclusively men. So for those, predominately women, who had arranged abolitionist movements such as the Sugar Boycotts, they could not simply vote their way to seeing their goals come to fruition. To compound the issue, consider who, within Britain, might have owned slaves. Of course, it was those who had the right to vote. Nobody in their right mind would vote away their source of income, wealth, and power on the basis of, what was considered to be, a moral ambiguity at worst.

Yet, the old money had a problem; a new and emerging breed of capitalists. They had the wealth and land-holding to satisfy the conditions necessary to be granted the right to vote. And they wanted change. Alongside their new Irish allies within the House of Commons, they created a tipping-point within parliament, where any vote on the subject of slavery truly was in the balance. So how could they win their argument; how could they see their economic fantasies come to life? Well, they would appeal not to the hearts or minds of the old money, but to their pockets.

A truly monumental program of compensation was proposed for British slave-owners in order to bribe them into accepting abolition. And, for the most part, it worked. 1807 Act, 1833 Act, hey presto. Done and dusted. The story is over. In a manner of speaking. Many slave owners simply could not accept what was coming to pass. They petitioned the government, demanding additional cash in order to set their property free. There are detailed records of correspondence between individuals and the department set up to deal with compensation claims in which elderly widows pleaded their case to be given more money, because they simply could not cope without their slaves in the Caribbean providing them a source of income. It was ultimately a futile effort, as compensation was dealt with in a uniform manner, but it demonstrates the mindset of those who could not let go of their power. The compensation package was so monumentally huge that it accounted for a staggering 40% of the British Treasury’s entire annual income – the largest expenditure ever undertaken by a British government. To put this into context, it took Britain 61 years to pay off its Second World War debts. Yet it took 182 years to pay off its slavery compensation bill. Britain had to be bribed to the value of a debt that would take nearly two centuries to pay off in order to unwind itself from the brutality of its slave system. But we have still not reached the end of our story.

Britain may have been the first major empire to leave behind its slave trade, however it continued to profit enormously from the existing global system.

The powerhouse of the British industrial economy, Manchester’s Cottonopolis, still required raw materials. From whom would it purchase its raw materials? Our partner across the sea, the USA. Britain consumed vast quantities of raw materials from slave-owning nations in order to power its new capitalist economic machine. And although it nominally condemned nations for not following in its abolitionist footsteps, no real pressure was exerted upon others to follow suit. Indeed, when civil war broke out within the USA, the majority of wealthy British individuals supported the slave-owning Confederacy of Southern States, and trade with it continued unabated. Hardly the actions of a newly morally-enlightened people.

So, Britain can hardly be applauded for its role in abolishing slavery. But there is one final point that simply must be addressed before concluding.

To praise Britain for abolishing slavery is to ignore one absolutely crucial point; slavery is an evil practice. Therefore, to offer congratulatory applause is suggesting that something extraordinarily magnanimous took place. However, that simply is not the case. It was not ‘kind’ to free the slaves; it should be considered a basic behaviour. Yet there is an adulation reserved for the 1833 Act that is simply not deserved; we should surely focus solely on the cruel and barbaric activity that went before, and look upon 1833 as a return to what should be normality.

Any other way of perceiving British actions in relation to this system would be like, for instance, if a police officer had kneeled on the neck of an individual for eight minutes and forty six seconds, followed by a crowd applauding him for finally doing the right thing by removing it, two minutes after the individual had already suffocated to death.

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Did the USA Really Lose the War in Vietnam?

There is no denying that from either side of the political fence, the War in Vietnam was a disaster for all involved. The USA lost so much political capital that it would take decades to regain its prestige in international relations, if indeed it ever did. The USSR angered its superpower rival to the extent that the USA spent the subsequent years building up a military force that would ultimately lead to the bankruptcy of the communist bloc. And for the Vietnamese, so much blood was shed on both sides of the 17th parallel that the scars of the conflict will be felt possibly for centuries.

The USA withdrew its last troops from Vietnam in a stunning capitulation on the 29th and 30th of April, 1975. During this action, its people were helicoptered from the rooftops of buildings whilst the army of North Vietnam entered the city of Saigon. Civilians and military personnel alike were unceremoniously dumped on naval vessels, whilst helicopters and military equipment were dumped overboard to ensure enough space. This was hardly a Dunkirk-style evacuation; even the USA were unable to draw positive political propaganda from this failure.

The war was marked by numerous horrific actions from both sides, from the capture and torture of US airmen and soldiers, to the massacres of civilians by the US army. Towns were wholly destroyed, and ancient tropical jungle subjected to chemical defoliation agents that turned lush, green scenery into desert land, and in turn causing a generation of Vietnamese children to suffer lives plagued by painful birth defects. There is no denying the grotesque nature of what took place during those years.

Yet, for all of the action and counter-action, the question has to be raised as to whether or not the USA really lost the war in Vietnam. In order to answer that question, one must first consider one crucial thing; what was the USA’s objective, and was it achieved?

In the mid-1950s, a particularly virulent and extreme form of capitalist fervour had swept the USA under the name of McCarthyism. The premise was simple; capitalism very very good, communism very very bad. At its height, it was not vastly different to the Salem Witch Trials, in that people were accused of supporting, favouring, or even just sympathising with communist or socialist principles, and were turned into social pariahs at best, or incarcerated without evidence or trial at worst. Those accused of even the slightest socialist leanings were outcasts within their society – something which was frequently weaponised against foes. Is a political rival becoming too popular? They are a communist sympathiser. Neighbour annoying you? They have socialist tendencies. It was all so very ugly.

Whilst the reasons for the diametric opposition and incompatibility of the two political philosophies is deep, and most likely irreconcilable, I will not go into detail here (although it makes an interesting post for another day!). Suffice to say, it must simply be accepted that each side saw the other as the devil – as evil personified. And so imagine the horror in the minds of middle-Americans as they watched the formation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, and as China fell to communism, and as South East Asian countries slowly but surely revealed their leftist leanings. Imagine the fear and panic as a red wave swept slowly and inexorably across those nations, all the while the USSR was testing nuclear weapons far more powerful than the USA was capable of. In the minds of the public and politicians, something had to be done.

The first attempt to curb the spread of communism in the East was in Korea, and led to a conflict that was every bit as brutal and deadly as the Second World War. The war ground down to a stalemate, and the ancient country of Korea was divided into two parts; the communist North, and the capitalist South. To the USA, this was a devastating loss.

Yet, not as devastating as seeing its neighbour, Cuba, fall to communism. Oh, the USA tried to prevent it by sending an overwhelming force. And the world expected the greatest economy and pinnacle superpower to steamroll the tiny island nation into acceding to its political will. So imagine the embarrassment when the USA failed in its primary objectives. Now multiply that by the chagrin when Cuba opened itself up to the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil.

The loss of diplomatic capital on the international stage was about as much as the USA could take, and be damned sure that the next nation daring to fly a red flag upon its capitol buildings would have unleashed upon it the wrath and fury of a nation whose wealth and military might totalled that of the rest of the world combined.

And that nation would be Vietnam.

The USA entered the war under the pretext of preventing the ‘Domino Theory’ – President Eisenhower’s belief that if Vietnam fell to communism, it wold not be long before Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, and Bangladesh would fall in quick succession. It was a relatively sound theory, after all, it is exactly what had happened in Eastern Europe only a handful of years previously.

So, when Ho Chi Minh sough the support of communist China and the USSR to gain its independence from the yoke of French colonial oppression, the USA decided it simply would not do. A political entanglement saw the USA first of all ditch its anti-imperialist ideology to support the French, then support a capitalist independence movement, then… well, it’s all a bit messy and could quite frankly be the subject of a many-volumed book series (and indeed it has). But suffice to say, the upshot is that the USA ended up supporting a puppet capitalist government based in the South of the nation, aiming to prevent the North from taking over the entire country under the banner of communism.

The primary goal of the USA was to prevent the spread of communism across South East Asia. And whilst its military muscle was entirely embarrassed by the resourceful guerrilla warfare tactics of the North, it has to be said that it did not fail in this goal. Whilst Vietnam would eventually fall to communism, of those other nations that were feared to turn left, only Vietnam and Laos are communist today. Cambodia had various flirtations with the ideology, and there is no denying that there is a strong socialist leaning in those other nations. But the fact remains that South East Asia is predominantly capitalist. So the USA, regardless of its numerous cock-ups (and there are hundreds, worthy again of a separate post) in the field, largely achieved its goal in the Vietnam War.

Why then does the world remember the Vietnam War as a loss for the Americans? Well, it is a simple answer. The actions of the USA during the decades of the war were at times utterly deplorable. It was a national embarrassment. Mass protests were held across the nation against the war, which even led to the killing US citizens on their own soil and at the hands of their own security forces. The US withdrawal was similarly a chapter in their history that they would prefer to forget; helicoptering scared individuals from rooftops is not an image of victory. It is not raising the flag on Iwo Jima; it provides no newspaper-friendly photographs, and it cannot be propagandised. But it must be accepted that neither embarrassment nor morally-questionable actions equate to a loss of war. After all, many of the actions taken under Churchill in the Second World War were morally reprehensible, yet it is not in doubt which side won.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that the war was not for the USA to either win or lose. It was, in essence, a civil war between the communist north and the capitalist south. The USA was merely a supporting party. Albeit, one who ran around-the-clock bombing missions against North Vietnamese targets, and fought at close quarters with the enemies of the South. It would be hard to argue that an external nation can either win or lose the civil war of another nation.

So. The USA did not lose the war in Vietnam; it achieved its wider goals in the long-term. However, it did lose something far greater; its perception of power, dominance, and impenetrability. Prior to the war, as noted above, the economic power of the USA was equal to that of the rest of the world combined. It’s military might was seen as an insurmountable force. Yet, by the time the war ended, it had lost both of these statuses leading to increased challenge from other parties across the globe.

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Did the British Empire actually exist?

We all know about the British Empire – that grand old institution responsible for colouring a quarter of the world map in pink, and providing a source of pride for those who love to stick one in the eye to the French, who never quite achieved the same level of global dominance and had to settle for second place in the pecking order. We have all read, heard, or watched programmes on how the British Empire industrialised the world, brought civilisation to undeveloped regions, and connected the globe with train tracks and telegraph lines. We know that Pax Britannica brought peace at the end of a battleship’s gun barrel, and that in its death-throws, the Empire provided a bulwark against the Nazi onslaught in Europe. Its legacy is evoked annually in an orgy of patriotism at the Last Night of the Proms, in which thousands of people who don’t really understand the Empire empty their lungs to sing about how the mighty power of the thirty four remaining British Naval attack vessels still hold the ability to protect citizens of the realm from hypersonic jet fighters, ICBMs, and nuclear weapons. Somewhat hopeful if you ask me, but a nice thought, nonetheless.

So, we all know that the British Empire existed. We learned about it in school, we read about it in textbooks, and we have watched television presenters run around excitedly like children who have eaten too much sugar talking hurriedly about ‘the events that shaped Britain’, or ‘the fifty greatest achievements of the British Empire’. We all know that the British Empire existed. But did it? Well, yes. But also no. And as I shall be arguing, slightly more no than yes.

To explore this subject, we will take a look at some of the key areas that may cast doubt on the entire existence of the British Empire. We will take a whistle-stop tour of some of the most important moments in its history and examine their validity in the grander narrative before taking a dive into the subject of what an empire actually is, and examine whether the British Empire satisfies analytical definitions. In summation we shall conclude whether or not the British Empire ever really existed, and consider if there is, perhaps, a better way to conceptualise it.

Before beginning, a very brief timeline of British history is useful to place the empire that we commonly speak of in its rightful place in the historical narrative. The first British Empire is not necessarily the one that you are thinking of, with its mighty ships and trading colonies spread around the world. Instead, it might well be attributed to the Roman military commander, Carausius, who instigated the very first Brexit back in 286 AD. Having split from Rome, he established a stable and peaceful realm spanning the length and breadth of the British Isles, complete with its own government and even mint. He appears to have been popular with the locals too, who took warmly to him after years of dissatisfaction with Roman rule. However, this first British Empire was not to last and in 293 AD, Carausius’s treasurer, Allectus, quite literally stabbed him in the back. Possessing neither the military nor the political skill of his former boss, Allectus saw the British Isles recaptured by Rome in 296 AD.

The next British Empire was the first with overseas reach. The Norman Empire, whose political power was consolidated in London in the decades following the 1066 conquest, had territory spanning from the Scottish borders to Italy, and as far afield as Antioch.

The Norman Empire would eventually evolve into the Angevin Empire, whose power could be equated to an expired battery and whose territory collapsed slowly and painfully like a badly conceived soufflé.

Which leads us to the roots of the British Empire that we all know and love.

It is a commonly ignored fact that centuries of failure preceded the establishment of the Empire. But our story really begins in 1497, when , in an attempt to emulate the success of the Spanish five years earlier, Henry the Seventh commissioned John Cabot to set sail in search of lands to settle. Ultimately his quest was unsuccessful, and no empire was founded. As was the case in 1578 when Martin Frobisher made similar attempts under the direction of Queen Elizabeth. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Hilbert was successful in founding the colony of St John’s in Newfoundland, but he and his companions were not fans of the cold, so only took up residence there in the summer. Roanoke was established in 1586, but the colonists mysteriously disappeared after one year. And Cuttyhunk was established in 1602, but abandoned after one month. Finally, on the 14th of May, 1607, after a one hundred and ten years of failed attempts under eight monarchs, Captain Christopher Newport founded Jamestown in what is modern day Virginia.
The following century was an entirely different story. Over fifty colonies, settlements, forts and trading posts were established, which surely demonstrates that the British Empire had arrived.

Except that, as those of us with healthy love of pedantry would point out, it hadn’t. Britain only lurched into existence in 1707 under the Act of Union, which tied together England and Scotland. No British Empire could exist prior to that point, because no political or national entity named Britain existed prior to that point. In fact, there is no commonly agreed nomenclature for the loose association of English possessions before 1707, and although the first, presumably aspirational, use of the term ‘British Empire’ appears to be in the mid seventeenth century, its usage did not significantly increase until the 1770s – right about the time that the debate about how Britain might best dispose of its expensive and unwieldy empire began.

Aha! You might think. But the British Empire did indeed exist from 1707 onwards, regardless of the technicalities of language!

Yes, that may be the case. However, the very construct of the Empire itself must be considered before allowing oneself to agree with that thought.

Much of the British empire was established through the grant of commercial charter and subsequent company rule. The most commonly known of these was the East India Company, which ran vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent between 1600 and its eventual collapse in 1874. However, the very first colony, Jamestown, was established itself by a company – the Virginia company. In fact, much of what became the Empire was gained following the establishment of territorial footholds by private companies, followed by subsequent emigration. And many territorial possessions would be held at arms-length throughout the existence of the Empire. Indeed, for the longest time, the greater part of the British Empire was only indirectly ruled, with a handful territories directly administered by the British government. This style of indirect rule could be compared with a school bully kindly offering to relieve a peer of their lunch money so that he did not have to give him a good beating; it is the projection of control, but it is not a genuine relationship. Yet, much as the size, longevity, and homogeneity of the British Empire has been greatly diminished by this avenue of argument, it still must be conceded that it did seem to exist from 1707 onwards.
If the start of the Empire seems convoluted, then its end is even messier. Suffice it to say that there are numerous arbitrary dates that one could stick a pin in as to its end point – the 1997 transfer of power in Hong Kong, or the end of British Rule in India in 1947, to name but two. However, after years of study into the subject I have accepted that the 1926 establishment of the Commonwealth provides the strongest claim to the end of the British Empire. Well, at very least the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. In a nutshell, that those in the corridors of power had accepted by this point that the Empire had to be reorganised due to powerful economic arguments as to the advantages of laissez-faire and a generally disgruntled population, makes a compelling argument. That it stumbled on for a few more decades is, to me, largely irrelevant; after Mary had her head chopped off she kept blinking – that did not mean she was still alive.

So, 1707 to 1926, the British Empire existed. Hurrah! Two hundred and nineteen glorious years of Imperium Britannicum. If nothing else, we have put the claim that the British Empire did not exist to the test, and disproved it.

Or have we?

It would be more precise at this juncture to suggest that we have determined that an Empire existed with Britain in charge. But we have by no means confirmed what an empire actually is, much less whether the one we have been talking about was ruled by Britain. In order to do this, we must consult the fabulously pedantic scholarship of my hero, Alexander Motyl. And, should he ever come across this work, he must forgive my butchery of its intricate detail.

Motyl is an expert in the subject of what it means to call something an empire. Not for him was the suggestion that an empire is simply, ‘a collection of colonies ruled from the centre and separated by sea’, as many post-colonial American scholars have attempted to use in order to diminish the imperial mannerisms of the extant US state. First and foremost, as pointed out by Motyl, this would invalidate the claim that Austria-Hungary, due to its landlocked status, was an empire. Instead, Motyl defines an empire as peripheries connected to the metropole, where the metropole is able to project its political, economic, military, and cultural power upon the peripheries. It makes nothing of this being a formal arrangement, and accounts for the informal arrangement of empire as we have previously described. USA, take note. This definition of empire envisages it as in a hub-and-spokes arrangement, whereby everything flows through the central metropole, and there is limited interconnectivity between the peripheries. Of course, there will be some trade amongst them, and some cultural crossover. But the majority of interaction happens via the metropole.

Therefore, for the British Empire to exist in this capacity, it must pass four tests; did the political, economic, military, and cultural power flow via the metropole? Well, as tenuous as it might be given the informal arrangement of empire described earlier, political power certainly did flow from the periphery to the metropole. If anything, this is inextricably linked to the economic test in the case of the British Empire; private companies required royal permission or government mandate in order to pursue trade and establish colonies. The governor of Jamaica could not apply to the Viceroy of India for an adjustment to the laws there, everything had to be dealt with centrally. So one might well say that the political test is passed. Economically too, the metropole dominated global trade. The whole principle of the trading empire was to import raw materials to Britain, transform them into manufactured goods, and export them to the Empire at great profit. So without going in to vast amounts of detail, it is safe to say that the economic test is passed.

The military test is somewhat more complex. Although it was the government of the metropole that directed the majority of military action, the vast army of the East India Company and its successor, the British Raj, outnumbered that of the British Isles by quite some margin. So perhaps it might seem that the military test would not be passed. However, one must recall those flag-waving patriots at the Last Night of the Proms. It was not the terrestrial military that secured the military power of the British Empire – many European nations throughout the nineteenth century far outclassed the British with regards their ground armies. It was the Royal Navy, whose policy of maintaining a greater power than the two nearest rivals combined ensured the security of the Empire. As this projection of military power onto the periphery was at the direction of the metropole, we can say that the military test is passed.

The projection of cultural power from the metropole onto the periphery is a hugely complex topic – much more so than the other three tests. But if one considers the spread of only one aspect of British culture – the English language, then one can see the effects of cultural domination upon the Empire.
So, the British Empire passes the four tests of empirehood/empiredom/empiring…. Once again, hurrah! Yay! We can go back to waving our flags in celebratory ignorance of its negative side!

Or can we…?

We have without doubt confirmed that it existed between the years of 1707 and 1926 or there abouts, and we have confirmed that it passes the Motyl test of being an empire.
But we have yet to explore one key fact – possibly the most important of them all. Was the British Empire… the British Empire?

The Motyl tests are all well and good, but in the case of the British Empire, their use presupposes a monocultural homogeneity that simply does not exist with these British Isles. And it is that phenomenon that we must now explore.
Britain is infamous for its diversity, even prior to the incredible cultural and societal benefits brought about by modern immigration. For example, having recently moved from a big, metropolitan city to a village in rural South Yorkshire, I can barely recognise the language spoken by my neighbour as matching that spoken by myself. Indeed, when I first moved in, he informed another member of the local community that I must be, and I quote, ‘from somewhere abroad’, because I was such an alien entity to him.

It is this diversity that must be reconciled in relation to the British Empire to determine whether or not it really existed. Did the cotton merchant of Manchester, or the wool merchant of Leeds, or the ship builder of Glasgow, or the financier of London, all have the same agency to project their economic and cultural power upon the Empire? And if so, could they do so as part of one homogenous entity? Was Britain really the hub, and if not, what implications does that have for the existence of the British Empire?

Let us put the British Isles themselves to the Motyl tests; political, economic, military, and cultural.

Firstly, it is beyond doubt that the political power of Great Britain is, was, and pretty much always has been, centralised to within the geographic scope of a few streets in London. The regions of the nation have no power to negotiate with one another, and they have no right to grant one another new laws. Even the devolved governments of modern Britain have limited independent agency. Protests on every facet of political change invariably lead to London. Throughout history, even those protests whose mass gatherings happen elsewhere, such as the peasant’s revolt of 1381, result in petitions being delivered to within sight of the capital. On occasion, the government might engage in some kind of outreach program, sending the great and the good into the wilds of the provinces to pacify the locals, but this is never a great deal more than lip service.

It is a similar story economically. Of course, goods are manufactured, distributed, and exported from all regions of the nation. However, the permission to do so was and is granted by the government, situated in the capital. The laws that grant the right to trade spices in French Indochina, or place a special sticker on your electrical goods to say that they are fit for purpose are all created in the capital, and the laws governing the percentage of your profits you must hand over for the privilege of doing so are similarly centralised.
It goes without saying that almost every military decision undertaken by the British since the year dot has been taken by the government or crown, situated in the capital. Of course, the occasional civil war has broken out, but these are not the decisions of the nation or the empire, but individual choices that do not affect this argument.

Finally, on the subject of cultural power, although there has been a drive in recent years to diversify the creation centres away from London, it is clear where the cultural power of the nation truly lies. And this is not a modern phenomenon. Although Mendelssohn might have engaged in a jaunt across Britain in the 1820s and 30s, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and any number of great artists, musicians and performers hit the capital and remained there without seeing beyond the city limits. If a rare museum piece is to be shown in the country, it will be in London. If a rock god is to play one show only in the UK, it will almost always be in London. If an up and coming young artists wants to make it, they move to London. As much as we regional folk would hate to admit it, London drives the cultural heart of the nation.

With this in mind, how can it be claimed that a person in Inverness, Newcastle, or Carlisle is, was, or has ever been any more a part of the metropole of a great empire than an individual from Port Royal, Boston, or Melbourne? They are each as separated from the power of the metropole as one another.

I began this exploration by stating that the British Empire existed, and it did not. But it didn’t more than it did. And in summary, I believe this remains true. An empire existed with a metropole located within the British Isles, but it was by no means a British Empire. Instead, it was the Empire of London. It was London, not Britain, that projected its political, economic, military, and cultural power to, at its greatest extent, a quarter of the worlds landmass and population. One might be tempted to argue that the Empire of London could not possibly be a real thing, because England is too small to constitute an empire in and of itself. However, this is to dismiss the Aztec Empire, which was less than half the land size of England, and the Ashanti Empire, less than a fifth the size of England, as non-existent. Landmass does not define empire – if that were the case, there are many modern nations that would be classified as such today.

An Empire of London could even be argued to have pre-existed the 1707 entity that has been under discussion by 638 years – the moment when William the Conqueror consolidated his power in the South by harrying the North.

In conclusion, the British Empire did not exist. But over the centuries, a great empire did rise up from within the British Isles to rule across the globe. But it has been alarmingly misnamed. The Empire of London has existed since at least 1069. And as a final thought, by all of the tests put forward as to what constitutes an empire, it still exists to this day.

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